Protect your lungs: Here's how to help lower ozone levels going into the hotter weather

It’s invisible, can't be smelled, is undetectable to the human eye, and can be fatal to humans, animals, plants and planet Earth as a whole. And with the onset of warmer weather in central Arizona, ozone pollution becomes a greater threat.

April 1 marks the start of ozone season, as ground-level ozone concentrations start to rise with the temperature and air quality officials begin to issue pollution alerts. High ozone levels create serious health risks, particularly on hot and sunny days. Because Phoenix has no shortage of hot days, ozone levels can build to dangerous levels.

“Ozone is a consequence of oxygen mixing with different chemicals in the air,” said Valleywise Health emergency physician Dan Quan. “They all combine together to form reactive species called ozone, and it causes inflammation of the lungs, leaving them more susceptible to infection.”

Much like the skin getting sunburned, the respiratory system gets irritated by ozone and inflames and damages the lining of the lungs.

According to the American Lung Association, long-term ozone exposure contributes to “increased respiratory illnesses, metabolic disorders, nervous system issues, reproductive issues (including reduced male and female fertility and poor birth outcomes), cancer and also increased cardiovascular mortality.”

Both long-term and immediate intake of ozone exacerbates asthmatic conditions, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD, and other lung diseases, ultimately reducing the immune system’s ability to fight off illnesses.

Air quality officials have stepped up efforts to reduce ozone levels and now also face tighter limits on small dust particles.

What is ozone and what are the health risks?

Ground-level ozone is created when oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) combine. Emissions from vehicles, industrial boilers, chemical and power plants, and other sources chemically react with sunlight and create these dangerous elements.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deemed ozone a serious pollutant because of the health issues it can cause. To ensure emissions remain at healthy levels, the agency has established National Ambient Air Quality Standards of 0.070 ppm averaging over 8 hours.

Experts at the EPA say ozone, a powerful oxidant, can do much more than just irritate the airways. Depending on the level of exposure, ozone can:

  • Cause coughing and sore or scratchy throat.

  • Make it more difficult to breathe deeply and vigorously and cause pain when taking a deep breath.

  • Inflame and damage the airways.

  • Make the lungs more susceptible to infection.

  • Aggravate lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.

  • Increase the frequency of asthma attacks.

These health issues have been found in healthy people as well, but the effects are much more serious in those with preexisting conditions.

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Who is most at risk from ozone?

Those who experience seasonal allergies, endure lung diseases, struggle with asthma or COPD are at the highest risk for complications with ozone. But otherwise perfectly healthy people are also vulnerable.

“We're all susceptible to having some sort of lung problems when high ozone levels occur,” Quan said. “It's just some of us handle it better than others. For those of us who have healthy lungs, we have more lung sacs, called alveoli, that are used to oxygenate and keep us healthy, but when ozone levels are high the lungs have to work that much harder.”

According to the EPA, people with diminished amounts of nutrients such as vitamins E and C are also at great risk from ozone exposure. Children are also highly susceptible to being compromised by high ozone levels, as their lungs are not fully developed, and are likely to be playing outdoors when ozone is high.

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Ozone in Maricopa County

According to data compiled by the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, 412,752 Maricopa County residents are affected by asthma. Of those, 83,547 are children.

Maricopa County county regulates facilities that have the potential to emit chemicals such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and more, according to Ari Halpert, communications department officer with the Maricopa County Air Quality Department.

“We regulate facilities that have the potential to emit these chemicals that would end up forming ground-level ozone,” explained Halpert. “But the real issue with controlling this type of air pollutant is that it's coming from vehicles driving and idling mostly. So what we do, is every year we launch a campaign called Commit to One Day Help Keep Ozone Away.”

This campaign encourages Maricopa County residents to reduce their emissions at least one day a week by carpooling, teleworking into work if possible, riding bikes or walking to get around, avoiding long drive-thru wait lines and parking the vehicle to go inside instead.

“All of these little habits contribute to lowering ozone emissions,” Halpert said. “So, we ask residents to commit to only one day a week. If we all start changing these habits, we can actually make an impact because regulation alone doesn't make air quality better — It's all of us chipping in.”

Another program the county air quality agency is employing is the Mowing Down Pollution program for residential and commercial lawn equipment. The program is designed to encourage residents to trade in their gas-powered lawn and garden equipment for electric or battery-powered tools.

Residents looking to participate can receive a voucher up to $150. To learn more about the program and see if you qualify, call 602-506-LAWN, email, or the program website under the ‘Who is Eligible to Receive a Voucher’ section.

The hottest parts of summer days are when ozone levels are at the highest and most dangerous. To help reduce emissions, the Maricopa County Air Quality Department encourages residents to take part in its campaigns and try doing the little things to help make a big difference for the health of everyone in the Valley.

To check current ozone levels near you, visit the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s air quality index online.

Caralin Nunes writes about weather and related topics for The Arizona Republic and Email her with story tips at

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Pollution rises with the start of ozone season in Maricopa County